The latest Scream installment successfully revived the black comedy slasher franchise, became a critical and commercial hit, and honored director Wes Craven’s legacy from the previous four films. But it also calls to mind the much darker inspiration behind screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s script: The Gainesville Ripper.
In August 1990, Danny Rolling brutally murdered five college students in Gainesville, Florida—as well as three people in Shreveport, Louisiana in November 1989—and was sentenced to death in 1994 before being executed in 2006.
According to pop culture lore, Williamson was watching a television program about the murders while housesitting alone. He realized a window was open in the home, became creeped out, and phoned a friend as he investigated the house whilst carrying a butcher knife. The result was the 1996 film that introduced the world to Ghostface.
But in the latest discovery+ “Shock Doc,” Scream: The True Story, available now on the streaming platform, paranormal investigator Steve Shippy and evidential medium Cindy Kaza explore the ghosts behind the face of the horrific real-life murders. As the duo conduct paranormal experiments at the site of Rolling’s campsite in Florida, where he was based during the killings, and perform an exorcism in his childhood home in Louisiana, the program conjures the notion that Rolling was possessed by a demon.
The result is an intense hour and 24 minutes where the true crime and paranormal genres combine. For Shippy, it was also an attempt to explore supernatural forces, but without being gratuitous or letting a serial killer off the hook for their crimes.
Shippy has produced and directed multiple feature-length documentaries about the paranormal (including “A Haunting on Hamilton Street,” “A Haunting on Dice Road,” and “A Haunting on Brockway Street”), and in the following conversation, he discusses the unique challenges of investigating the life, and potential afterlife, of a monstrous human.
[Editor’s Note: Interview edited for length, and clarity.]
Den of Geek: When did you learn that Kevin Williamson was inspired by the Gainesville murders to write Scream?
Steve Shippy: When Scream came out [the first film] I did see it in the theater on opening night. I actually love the film. I didn’t realize it was based on a true story until four or five years ago.
How do you approach this topic without appearing to be exploitative about a horrific crime?
With this case in particular, it was about trying to discern, was Danny Rolling truly influenced by some sort of darker spirit? Danny didn’t make these claims after he was arrested while the media attention was on him. He was making these claims far before he was caught at his campsite. We call it a campsite but it’s where he was hiding… in a tent.
At night, he would stalk his victims. He made a series of audio recordings where he was ranting for hours about this demon Gemini that would come to him, and he would be changed and taken over. It is interesting to wonder, was Danny already under this demonic influence, or did he almost conjure a demonic influence by believing he was, and committing these murders and almost opening a gateway to potentially being possessed?
You interview Rod Smith, a prosecuting attorney on this case, and later a senator for the state of Florida. What was his take on this demon?
I think he made it clear he doesn’t give any credence to that. I see where he is coming from. A lot of people didn’t even want to listen to what Rolling was saying about this potential demonic influence because they probably viewed a way where he was trying to deflect responsibility for the disgusting things he did. Which is completely understandable.
Smith said in his prosecution materials that Rolling was making up this Gemini character because he had seen The Exorcist III, which also includes a demonic serial killer character named Gemini who decapitates victims. Smith said Rolling had only seen The Exorcist III a day or two before he began his killing spree, and lifted this Gemini character from that movie as an excuse. But that’s not where your mind is at?
It’s hard to say with that exact reference, and what was going through this twisted guy’s mind. For me, I am more latching onto, and examining, hundreds of hours of ranting and raving about being consumed by a demon. These were his private recordings. I don’t know that he thought he was going to be caught, and they were hidden away. After listening to them, it did seem he authentically believed this was happening to him.
On top of that, you have at least 50 drawings where he is constantly sketching out this victim, this creature that approaches, and this monster emerging from that. Clearly he was deranged. But can you discount there could have been some ominous force around him? Besides that, with the investigation with Cindy and I, the things we experienced sure seem to point to that.
In his private recordings, does he specifically mention this Gemini demon as possessing him?
Possessing him, taking him over. That this creature would come to him, and he shape shifts, doesn’t recall anything, has time loss.
When you’re investigating a paranormal case, there are people who are suffering from mental imbalances before we get to demons. Where do you think is the line where this is no longer someone mentally unwell—which is an an understatement—to someone demonically possessed?
If I am investigating a case, and we’re there to see certain things… for instance investigating Danny Rolling’s childhood house, and hearing knocks of three, smelling a pungent foul smell, and receiving things through our devices… when you compile all that together, it did seem there was something demonic in that house.
Can you talk more about the decision to go to that house, and what the current owner was experiencing?
All roads led to Rolling’s childhood home. We left Gainesville, Florida and went to Shreveport, Louisiana. At the time, we weren’t sure if we’d be allowed in the house. Upon meeting [the current owner of the home], it was shocking to find out right away her home is haunted. She would state they would be attacked two to three times a week. What’s noteworthy is that there was no activity right away [when they bought the home]. It began right around Thanksgiving 2006. Danny was executed in October 2006. That gave me a chill. Right away you wonder if it could be the spirit of Danny back at the house.
At the end of the day, what do you think you encountered? Was it a ghost of a serial killer or do you think there was a demonic presence? All of the above?
I would like to say all of the above. I don’t know for absolute certain whether or not it was just Danny as a human spirit or if it was a demonic situation portraying itself as Danny. Cindy kept saying over and over she had not experienced something like this before. There were times I felt we were encountering a human spirit, then seconds later the whole house was rumbling, we’re hearing this banging on the ceiling, all the meters go off at the same time … I know there was something demonic there.
Do you think you helped the current owner of Danny Rolling’s childhood home?
I do. I remember getting a voicemail that plays at the end of the documentary. When I heard the voicemail, I remember smiling and listening to it. When I met her, you could see the stress in her face, hear it in her voice. The house was so dim and dark, in an abstract sense and literal sense. When I heard that voicemail, that “he’s gone.” She kept saying, “he,” thinking it must have been Danny that was there, and that “nothing has happened since.” It doesn’t mean something can’t come back, but thus far it has helped her.
When we go down the path of a paranormal investigation involving a serial killer who claimed to be possessed, how do you pursue this while not letting this human off the hook for these brutal acts?
Excellent question. None of us gave an excuse for what Danny did. At the end of the documentary, I make it clear that if we inadvertently set his spirit free through the minor rite of exorcism, let him face the judgment he deserves. We went in to investigate if there was a paranormal element to this case and to investigate this house. Personally, I don’t believe everything Danny did is based on demonic oppression or possession. If anything, I think this came about through his actions. It could be a generational thing, but if that wasn’t the case, his actions and horrible deeds are what allowed him to be overtaken by something of this nature. I don’t let Danny off the hook for what he did.
From your perspective, if Rolling were still alive, and trying to appeal a death sentence, should attorneys be allowed to present the demon defense, or this documentary, as a defense argument?
Regarding the documentary, our experience took place after his death. I don’t know what was happening while he was living. I just know what we were capturing at his childhood home. It’s a hard question because I do believe evil exists, and people can be possessed. Probably 99 percent of the time whenever that’s brought up as a reason for what happened, I don’t think it is. But do I think, throughout human existence, someone did something atrocious because of being under demonic influence? I do.
Do you think this Shock Doc and paranormal investigation alters the dark legacy of these crimes?
If I believe we have altered the legacy at all, from a paranormal standpoint, we went in to investigate the claims the police would not investigate and to see if there was any credence to this, and if these locations are affected by the spirit of Danny, or whatever overtook Danny. We obviously believe yes, we did encounter that. Do I believe Danny wasn’t responsible for his actions? No, I don’t. I don’t think we altered anything in that sense.